Many North Lawrence campsite residents surprised, upset by new fence closing off camp

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Emerging from their tents on Tuesday morning, residents at the city-run campsite in North Lawrence saw workers installing a fence designed to keep visitors out. 

“We’re going to secure the area so we can start enforcing the no visitors policy,” Laura McCabe, a spokesperson for the city, said. “It’s always been no visitors, it’s just been impossible to enforce.” 

Now that the campsite for people experiencing homelessness is staffed 24/7, the city can enforce its original no visitors rule, McCabe said. 

City staff notified camp residents of the decision to put up the fence a few days prior, McCabe said. But of the 17 camp residents we spoke with Tuesday, three said the city spoke to them about the camp before it was installed; of those, two people said they told the city staff members they didn’t agree with the idea. 

Multiple residents said the fence made them feel like they were in a prison. A few said it made them feel like a “caged animal.”  

Chansi Long/Lawrence Times

“They wanted to monitor people coming in and out after (Ashley Sawyer’s death),” a camp resident named Clint said. Sawyer was found dead in her tent on March 21. “Ashley didn’t die from anything erroneous. They asked us if we wanted it and we told them no.”  

Rosetta Ross said city staff failed to notify her or anyone she knew of the decision to put up a fence. 

“Like, everybody’s asleep and no one knows that there’s a fence being put up right now,” she said. “They’re gonna wake up to a fence and be like, ‘What the … ?’ They will probably move to the woods or to the other side of the (river).” 

City staff should have at least made sure they notified everyone the fence was being put up, she said. 

“You’re not gonna go up into somebody’s yard and try to put a fence and keep people out of their home. That makes no f—ing sense. Makes no sense at all,” she said. “Like how would they like it if I went to each and every one of their individual houses and put up a fence?” 

Lori Lindaman, who uses a wheelchair, told city workers Tuesday that she was concerned about the fence hindering medics’ ability to access the camp during an emergency. She also said the fence was another obstacle for her to learn to navigate around. 

“This is just another barrier that I’m going to have to face,” Lindaman said. “I don’t understand how this is going to keep us safe. I can’t handle this. I can’t do this. I gotta get out of here.”

After a few camp residents criticized the fence as an obstacle from medical providers, sirens began to blare. Someone had called 911 reporting a fire. It was unclear who made the call, but when emergency personnel responded, many camp residents came out from their tents, confused.

Camp resident Vance Swallow said he agreed with the decision to put up a fence, saying he thought it would help keep out a couple of people who do not stay at the camp who he said have threatened him with physical violence in recent weeks. 

Tron Turner, 26, said no one from the city asked him what he thought about the fence — which he sees as a problem. 

“There’s no advisory board for the homeless people,” Turner said. “And the people that advise on the subject are just third parties, and I just really don’t think they care. There’s no real proper representation for us.” 

Turner asked McCabe, “If I got a petition signed to tear down the fence because we don’t want it here, and hand it over to the city, would the city do anything with that?” 

“I have no idea,” McCabe said. 

“If I got most of the campers to sign?” 

“I have no idea,” McCabe said. “I think that this is a decision that they’ve made for your safety to make sure that you are safe and secure.”

“I don’t really see how this is going to make us safe,” Turner said. 

“It just puts us more in danger,” Lindaman said. 

Chansi Long/Lawrence Times Tron Turner holds a petition that reads “Houseless community needs a voice, not a fence” on April 4, 2023 outside the Lawrence Public Library.

Developing the site

The original plan for the support camp in North Lawrence involved a fence around the perimeter, according to Jenn Wolsey, former homeless programs coordinator. But city officials advised Wolsey to avoid development in order for the site to stay aligned with zoning codes, she has said.

The site could not operate as a temporary shelter because city staff members didn’t attempt to gain approval for that use. Instead, it was just a patch of commercial district land where houseless people were instructed to camp. That’s why the city didn’t move the shower and office trailer to the site from the onset. 

But when Rick Renfro, owner of Johnny’s Tavern, asked the city to put up a fence in November, the city complied, perhaps opening up the opportunity for further development.

A partial fence encircled three of four sides of the camp but left the side facing the street open. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times This photo from March 22, 2023 shows the city-sanctioned campsite in North Lawrence on the left side. Across the way is the unsanctioned site. A fence built Tuesday, April 4 blocks off the open side.

Last month, the city decided to violate its own zoning regulations and install the hygiene trailer at the support site. And now the fence will keep visitors out, demarcate the support site and fortify the separation between the sanctioned and unsanctioned camp, which is also on city property. Residents of the unsanctioned side have already been prevented from using the hygiene trailer, and now it is inside the fence.

People whose tents are 20 to 30 feet away from the sanctioned site will no longer be able to enter the sanctioned side, McCabe said. 

“No visitors,” she said. 

Jennifer Adams

“They never spoke to me at all,” Jennifer Adams, known as the “camp mom,” said about the fence. 

Adams, who stays at the unsanctioned campsite and who once served as a contract worker for the city, has cultivated enduring emotional connections with people on the sanctioned side, and people often ask her for help, she said. But now that she is unable to freely move from one side of the camp to the other, she feels disheartened. 

“They’re not supposed to come over here, either,” she said. 

Queen, who stays on the unsanctioned side, was frustrated with the city’s decision to create more division, he said. 

“I’m gonna guesstimate about 80% of projects for the houseless fail in (Lawrence),” Queen said. “They are notorious at setting their projects up to fail from the beginning, from what I hear, because I talk with everybody in this community, and I ask them questions. And I listen, I love to listen. But this is stupid. That is the best word I can come up with right now.” 

Approved visitors 

The process for visitor approval is still unclear. Initially, McCabe said no visitors would be allowed. When asked if journalists were allowed to enter, she said “No visitors.” When we asked if mental health professionals were allowed to visit, she said yes, city-approved visitors will be allowed to come in as long as an individual resident invites them to come in. 

“If (a reporter) were to call and say ‘I want to come in,’ I can authorize (her) to come in,” McCabe said. 

How does someone get approval to visit? Who do they call? 

“I don’t know yet,” McCabe said, adding that the time it takes for approval will “hopefully (be) swift.” 

The city arranged for the group Artists Helping the Homeless to come to the support site and “mitigate trauma” Tuesday night, said Cicely Thornton, homeless projects specialist. 

Turner, who had asked McCabe about the city’s likelihood to take a petition from the houseless seriously, said he planned to go to the City Commission meeting. He did start a petition and said he hoped he could convince city leaders to take the fence down. 

Other camp residents said they planned to take the fence down themselves and throw it in the river tonight. 

“It’s a mixed reaction and I think change is hard on everyone, but this is in their best interest in my opinion,” McCabe said. 

Queen agrees with McCabe — not on the decision to install the fence, but that change is hard. 

“People like us who suffer from mental illness and physical disabilities, there’s one thing we don’t like too much in our life, and it’s change,” Queen said. “Because once we get set in our ways, and it works for us, and somebody comes along to change things, to people with learning disabilities, we aren’t used to that. Because every little thing can be a big thing.” 

City staff members have said they intend to keep the campsite open at least until the Pallet Shelter Village opens, which is anticipated to be sometime in July.

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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